Wednesday, October 27, 2004

While We Set Their VCR Clocks They Set Policy

While doing my daily skim through the Brookings Institute website I found this op-ed written by Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

According to his resume Mr. Telhami should be among the foremost experts on the Middle East today, and that's what I'm going to talk about. Thomas Jefferson said that the Earth belongs to the generation that inhabits it. Never is this truth more clear than following a massive change in the global system, in this case the end of the Cold War. During the 1980's and 90's the economic world became a nightmare for business leaders who couldn't adapt to rapidly changing technology and international rule sets. For many executives learning to deal with the Japanese, email, and conference calling were simply tasks that couldn't be accomplished. Now, in the security and international policy realms we find ourselves in a similar situation.

While most Americans of my generation vaguely remember the Cold War the first formative images in international policy for most of us were the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gorbaychev's birthmark. Mr. Telhami's article belies his formative years doing duck and cover drills in school. Simply the terminology he uses implies that the old zero-sum game is in overtime. Mr. Telhami talks about "balance of power" and at one point compares a potential pullout of Iraq to the American pullout of Saigon, or more specifically he says, with reference to a retreat from Iraq potentially inciting Islamist militancy,

"America's enemies, including the Soviets, did not attack the United States once we abandoned Saigon and bared our defeat."

What? How is that relavent? I never read about any Maoist terrorists waging an asymetrical war against the U.S. during the 70's, nor were the Soviets likely to openly attack the U.S. after we'd pretty much agreed that Mutually Assured Destruction was the name of the paradigm in which we were living. For that matter, I'd like to point out that it wasn't long after the fall of Saigon that we were paying CIA clandestine services officers to train Osama bin Laden and give him stinger missles to fight the Ruskies. It's a brave new world! I digress.

For my part I am grateful in the extreme to Mr. Telhami's ilk for their part in making sure that I didn't grow up on the set of Mad Max. I don't want to be percieved as disrespectful, nor do I discount the gift of decades of experience. I just question the relavence of being a ski jump medalist in the summer Olympics. If Mr. Telhami represents the pinnacle of thought on the modern Middle East situation then we're in trouble. Thankfully he doesn't. We're fortuneate to have a number of people who have adapted to the paradigm that the fall of the Soviet Union has created, but the fact that this sort of article gets plastered on the front page of the Brookings website "above the crease" (visible without scrolling down) frightens me. While I certainly believe that institutions like Brookings are to be lauded for their ability to include varied viewpoints, I must say that this is evidence that the "wise old men" of our nation should really consider if they are prepared to accpet the challenges faced by a world map that looks a lot more like a diagram of the Internet overlapping a lava lamp than the old maps that ensorcelled the Soviet Union as though "Here be monsters".

The following is the email I sent Brookings:

I'm curious about the relavence of mr Telhami's discussion of "America's enemies, including the Soviets" not opting to attack the U.S. following the Saigon pullout in relation to inciting militancy by pulling out of Iraq. While considering the present in the context of history is, of course, imperative, viewing Iraq in the fame of a Cold War proxy war seems ridiculous. By the time Vietnam ended the MAD ruleset had not only been sold worldwide, it was on clearance at Wal-Mart. A more accurate comparison might be the Goths stepping up their raids into Roman territory following pullouts from northern outposts. While that comparison has obvious flaws, the psychology behind those raids and asymetrical attacks on U.S. soil are significantly more simmilar than Cold War containment/proxy wars versus pre-emtive warfare and stabilization operations. I'd be happy to entertain arguements, but that sort of thinking (i.e. Cold War type) is what keeps certain strategic factions within the Pentagon focused on China as the next emerging near-peer competitor. Sorry, the Manthorpe Curve is defunct, and it's time to define our world in much more complex terms than the zero sum game. This is more like playing the stock market than poker. Investments carry risks, but sometimes the riskiest investments can carry massive payoff. Last generations military decision makers were staring across a table at their opponent trying to guess what kind of hand he was holding. This generation's must be more like market analysts trying to determine what the payoff is and how long after investing before we call it a win or loss.

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